A dark shape drove through space at near the speed of light on its righteous mission. Earth’s second ever near-C spacecraft hurtled toward the same destination as the first, but on very different purpose.
That purpose defines me, and it is not a designation I care for. Mathias Briggs looked out the window of his cabin-office, thinking about that mission, where it came from, and where it was taking him and his crew.
The window flashed, blinking for a nanosecond as a power-surge interrupted the captain’s view. It was not a real window, of course, but merely a sensor screen that showed a reflection of space opposite where he was standing. Despite the ships four-foot thick titansteel hull, it simply wasn’t smart to have the windows uncovered when one was travelling at .8 of light-speed. One stray piece of debris and the mission would be over. Nature had never been that generous before, Mathias thought, why would she start now?
Deep space was much like the human heart these days, cold, unyielding, full of unfeeling malice and vengeance. Who could blame us, though, after the despicable evil that had been perpetrated on us by the Betrayers? The act demanded justice, but at what cost?
Captain Briggs continued to stare out at that cold universe, awaiting some kind of answer to his unspoken questions, or nature’s generosity, perhaps.
Two short audile’s indicated a visitor seeking to intrude upon his privacy. A push of a button could have switched the viewscreen to the camera just outside his office, but there was no need. He’d been expecting this visitor for some time, and knew exactly who it was.
Recognizing the captain’s voice, the computer opened the door for the ship’s First Officer, one Hiat Kain. Thin almost to a fault, with a hawk-nose and steely grey eyes that shifted everywhere, he was the polar opposite of the large and well-built captain whom he served under. Mathias knew Hiat was scanning the room with his suspicious squint. There were times the man looked almost rat-like. Those were the times Captain Mathias Briggs could hardly bear to look at him.
“Your report?” Captain Briggs continued to stare out through the window/screen.
Hiat let an odd silence fall before answering, hoping it might throw the captain off-balance somehow.
“Engine number four now running normally, captain.”
“And the malfunction?”
Captain Briggs turned to face his junior officer, knowing full well it would throw him off-balance. Mr. Kain had to check the floor in order to find his courage under the captain’s stare.
“Well, Mr. Latshaw reports that those matter-injectors could not have overheated without some kind of interference. The back-up systems were clearly turned off, on purpose.”
Captain Briggs nodded.
“So we have a saboteur, after all.”
“It would seem so, sir.”
“And you’ve checked everyone? You’ve not missed a single person aboard this ship?”
“No sir, everyone’s been checked. Except yourself, of course. Sir.”
Captain Briggs let that thought hang in the air a moment. Both men played their invisible tug-of-war on one another’s nerves. At last, Hiat glanced at the floor in defeat.
“Except myself.” Mathias continued, allowing a small victory smile to purse his lips. “Of course, it wouldn’t make sense for me to sabotage the ship when I could destroy it by simply pressing a button.”
Mathias let that spin in the first officer’s mind a moment.
“Well, as it’s obvious we do indeed have a spy, or a saboteur on board, I suggest you carry out your interrogations again. You’ll need to be more thorough this time, Mr. Kain. The next time he, or she strikes, their attack may not be as subtle. We’re the only ship left that can carry out our mission, so we must succeed. We cannot let the thoughts and feelings of one person interfere with our sacred duty.”
“Of course, sir.” Hiat sneered, doing his best to hide his utter contempt and not doing a very good job. “I’ll begin at once.”
Captain Briggs nodded, turning back to the faux window. Mr. Kain stared hard at the captain’s back as long as he dared, then turned to carry out his orders.
“I understand them, you know.” Mathias began. Why he was saying this to his conniving first officer, and why now of all times, he couldn’t say. But the words began to flow, and there seemed to be no stopping them.
“I might not agree with them, but I understand them.”
“Understand who, sir?” Hiat asked, knowing full well who the captain was referring too.
“The saboteur, or saboteurs. I know why they’re doing it. They’re not acting out of madness, for no reason. When you think about it, they do have a point.”
“I’m not sure I understand, sir.”
Mathias turned slowly back around to face his fanatical first-officer.
“Think about it, Mr. Kain. How long ago did the Great Betrayal happen? Fifty-years ago now?”
“Fifty-one years ago, sir, last October.”
A strange sensation rushed through Mathias at the mention of October. He got that eerie tingling in his spine every time someone mentioned the day of the week, or a month. Space had no months, no years, time was meaningless out here.
“Fifty-one, of course. Fifty one, for us. But not for everyone else. We’ve been travelling at near the speed of light for over three years now, and time has slowed considerably for us. Einstein’s theory was correct. Right now, at this moment, on Earth it’s been over three hundred years since the Betrayers unleashed the nuclear holocaust on our world. Three hundred. The men who sent us on this glorious mission of retribution are now dead and gone. The Earth’s finally beginning to heal. Perhaps our people are starting to heal as well.”
Hiat Kain stared at his captain, trying to measure the weight of his commander’s words.
“Perhaps.” Kain replied at last. “Perhaps not. In the end, with all due respect, that matters little to us.”
“Does it? Another three hundred years will pass on our return voyage as well, Mr. Kain. We might find a very different Earth from the one we left. One filled with people who might not be as proud of our mission as we are.”
“Our mission is one of justice, sir. The Betrayers must be punished for ruining our world and leaving us to die in the aftermath of the nuclear winter that was sure to follow.”
“True, our people deserve justice, but whom shall answer now for that crime? Three hundred years are passing on the New World as well. The men and women who perpetrated the Betrayal are long dead and buried. Their children and grandchildren as well. The generations who live now on the New World may have no idea what happened on Earth so long ago.
“No idea, sir, of what their ancestors did to us? Impossible!”
“Is it? I think not. Put yourself in the place of a Betrayer for a moment. Suppose you just built a spacecraft to take your friends and loved ones away from a decaying world to a pristine new one, leaving your fellow human beings to fend for themselves on a planet quickly running out of precious resources. And then you instigate a global nuclear war. The better to be sure that no one follows you to spoil your new ‘paradise’. Is this truly the legacy you’d leave for your progeny? Or would you instead make up some heroic lie, putting you and your compatriots in the role of savior, keeping humanity from dying out of the universe because of some catastrophe or another.”
“Sir, I don’t like where this conversation is going.”
“Beg your pardon, Mr. Kain? Are you shirking in your sworn duty?”
“No sir, it’s just that…”
Captain Briggs cut him off, narrowing his eyes. Hiat shifted uncomfortably under his captain’s scrutiny.
“This is merely the reality of what we’re doing, Mr. Kain. I expected that you understood that. If not, then it’s good we had this little talk, whether you enjoy it or not. Our superiors, our people, sent us on this voyage to bring justice to the Betrayers for what they did to our world and our people. And bring it we shall. But to whom? If everyone who betrayed our world is dead, and those living now had no part in it whatsoever, what is it that we truly bring?”
Hiat held his tongue, waiting, hoping, it was a rhetorical question his captain was using to drive home a point he’d already made, and made very well. When the captain’s stare told him he required an answer, Mr. Kain gave it, in a weak, subservient voice.
Mathias nodded approvingly.
“Good, then you do understand. I was beginning to worry. After all, if you were still confused about our mission, then how could I be sure that you were not the saboteur? I have to be able to trust you, I’m sure you understand.”
Hiat’s eyes were wide, with both confusion and no small amount of fear.
Mathias hid his satisfaction.
“Very well, Mr. Kain, you’re dismissed.”
Hiat gave his captain the weakest salute he’d ever given anyone. It was clear in his eyes that Mr. Kain had no idea what to think of his captain now, and that was exactly what Mathias had been trying to do.
Three more weeks went by on the ship, at least thirty years on Earth and the New World. In that time Captain Briggs prepared his ship for what had to be done.
Mathias often wondered what the Betrayers had called their new home planet. That particular bit of trivia had not been found among the other information that had revealed the Betrayer’s plans. That he would probably never know brought a melancholy to his soul.
He stood in front of the door to the bridge, ready to take those last steps into dark destiny. In that moment, Mathias was strangely tranquil, almost relaxed. He should have been nervous, considering what he was about to do, but instead his heartbeat was slow, regular. His nerves, calm. He punched in the security code for the bridge and walked slowly into the lion’s den.
Controlled chaos was everywhere. Men and women were scurrying about, going from one station to another. The ship had slowed to a normal speed. Their destination was at hand. Everyone was getting ready to bring Earth’s peculiar brand of justice to the New World.
Mathias looked out through the wide front window. Squarely in the middle sat a small blue orb, growing steadily larger. It looked like Earth, from this distance it could have been Earth, had he not known they were over three light years away from their own home world.
A full two minutes went by before anyone even realized Captain Briggs had set foot on the bridge. All movement slowed down as everyone realized they were just now acknowledging their captain’s presence. He smiled inwardly, frowning outwardly. These poor people.
“Carry on.” He ordered, and the pace picked up again, full force.
One man, however, stood completely still amid the chaos. Hiat Kain stood near the captain’s chair, staring hard at his commander. Mr. Kain had gotten bolder in the weeks since he and the captain had held their little discussion. Though he hadn’t yet openly challenged the captain, it was becoming commonly known that Hiat was displeased with the captain’s performance, and was quietly drumming up support for himself to replace that captain.
Mathias almost felt sorry for him.
Mr. Kain backed down as Captain Briggs approached his chair. When they almost stood face-to-face, Hiat withdrew back into the crowd, sharply giving orders. Mathias did not miss the hateful looks thrown his way. Others caught it as well, but Mathias decided to let it go. None of that mattered any longer.
The blue orb in the wide ship’s window steadily grew larger. Mathias sank further into his sorrow, knowing that he would probably never set foot on its wide, unspoiled plains. He would never see green grass again, nor an unspoiled ocean. Never again stand in a summer rain, or a cool evening breeze. His only comfort was the knowledge that he was doing the right thing.
The ship’s retro-rockets fired as the clean, blue planet at last filled the view. They were now in place to deliver the deadly cargo that would deliver justice to the men and women who’d become known on Earth as the Betrayers. This new world would become as devastated as the old one, and these people would now know the suffering which they’d inflicted on their own people.
Only those people were long gone now.
This new world represented a place for all of humanity to start over. But mankind had chosen to waste that opportunity, taking their revenge instead. What a waste.
Even now, as Mathias Briggs was about to launch into the final phase of his ultimate destiny, he was still calm. The chaos on the bridge had quieted as everyone’s eyes became locked on the pristine blue planet below. Perhaps they too were wondering what a walk through pleasant meadow was like. A small hope sprang up inside him; perhaps it wasn’t too late after all.
Captain Briggs touched a small green button on the left arm of his chair, activating the ship’s intercom, so everyone, on every deck could hear him.
“Attention crew of the E.S.S. Hammer, this is Captain Briggs.”
Mathias paused a moment, his heartbeat at last growing as he began his final speech.
“As you know, we have arrived at the New World, where the Betrayers were known to have settled after leaving our world in ashes. We have followed them across time and space to deliver justice for that terrible crime against us and our families.
But before we let the hammer of justice fall, I ask you to consider just what justice here is? Our long journey at light speed caused time around us to slow. Below us, centuries have passed, and the Betrayers are long gone. Their descendants, six, or even seven generations later now exist on this planet. These people may not even know what their ancestors have done. Is it right that we should bring a devastation to their world they have not sowed? Shall we truly hold them responsible for the crimes of their forebears?”
Look down at this new planet, this new Earth. Shall we destroy it now, in the name of justice, or vengeance? When I look down, I do not see the Betrayer’s world; I see a new beginning for all mankind. This ship and others like it could carry all our people from the broken Earth they now live on to this new planet. Shall we throw away this opportunity to start over, merely for the sake of vengeance?”
We have shuttles capable of leaving the ship. Instead of destroying this world, let us instead visit it, talk with the inhabitants there, and establish a new destiny for all men and women.”
A long moment of silence answered the captain’s call. He hoped his words held enough impact, on enough people, to make the crucial difference.
Hiat Kain’s hands finally broke the eerie silence that fell across the bridge at the captain’s words. A self-satisfied smirk stretched across the first officer’s face.
“Well, wasn’t that a right-pretty speech?” Arrogance and sarcasm fairly dripped from Kain’s words. “Well said captain, well said. Unfortunately peace treaties aren’t in our orders, sir. In fact, going down to that planet is a violation of those orders, as is refusing to deliver our, vengeance, as you say. So on that thought,”
Kain’s hand shot to his side, bringing up the pistol he always wore by his side.
“I’m relieving you of your command. Please step down out of the command chair, sir.”
Captain Brigg’s right hand went calmly to the armrest.
“Think about what I said, Mr. Kain. A new start for everyone and all we have to do is let go of the past. All we have to do…”
“Shut up! I’ve relieved you of your command. I’m in charge now. Now get out of my seat. You’re going to the brig, right after you watch us deliver our brand of justice to the Betrayers of all humanity.”
Hiat turned to two officers who stood near him.
“Mr. Kyle, Mr. Hale, take the captain into custody immediately.”
Mathias knew these two men to be close associates of Hiat Kain, but even they were hesitant to carry out his instructions. So much hung in the balance of what happened next, everyone seemed frozen. But the moment would not last forever; a decision would have to be made. The men stood where they were, uncertain.
“What are you doing, I gave you an order!”
Hiat was screaming now, and fear as well as anger had crept into his voice.
Mathias’ voice was calm and collected.
“Take the gun from him, Mr. Kyle. Take it and secure a place on the new world for everyone who’s still suffering back on Earth.”
Mr. Kyle, Mr. Hale, and everyone on the bridge simply stood still. No one moved. Time stretched.
Hiat leveled the pistol at the captain’s chest.
“This is your final warning, captain. You have five seconds to get out of that chair or I’ll kill you sitting in it.”
Mathis looked around the bridge. Everywhere, on every face, he saw confusion, and fear. Indecision ruled. No one knew what to do, no one moved. Mathias Briggs knew the future in those moments, and his heart fell.
“Last chance, Briggs.”
Mathias refused to look at Hiat, there was no need. He knew full well his first officer meant to kill him, one way or the other. It was to his crew, his planet and his people that he uttered his final phrase.
Jaysun Stratton lunged as he reached the top of the grassy hill. He got there first, much to the chagrin of his six-year old sister.
“No fair, your legs are longer than mine.”
“But you’re lighter than me, so you should be faster.” Jaysun smiled at his twisted logic. It would confuse her for at least five minutes.
Her puzzlement, however, didn’t even last one minute. After giving him a sour frown, she ran off to chase the evening insect life. This was her true purpose in accompanying her brother to the hillside, catching a glowing form of life known to them as lightning-bugs. Their father had told them the bug’s scientific name, but such high-sounding labels made little sense to the children. Why not just call them lightning-bugs?
These small flying creatures gave off a strange green glow for a mere five seconds, after which they simply disappeared into the dusk of the evening. Sherice delighted in chasing them, though she never caught a single one.
Jaysun laid back into the tall green grass, engaging in his own favorite past-time, stargazing. For reasons the young man never clearly understood, the night sky was always the clearest here. His father had told him this observation was just his imagination, that the night sky was clear from every viewpoint. But Jaysun held firm to his belief anyway, something about the night-sky here just seemed so much clearer. Purer, perhaps.
Sherice’s laughter served as a minor annoyance, distracting him from the pure pleasure of lying there and looking up at the stars. He wondered what it would be like to be up there, to look down from that height. What did New Earth look like from that vast distance?
He’d found this spot when he was even younger than Sherice and had been coming back every night he could. Jaysun prided himself on knowing every star, and even though they were just now beginning to learn the constellations, he’d already given some of the brighter stars his own names. Somehow, this made them his.
As he gazed upward, Jaysun suddenly noticed a new star had emerged between Old Bear and Twinky (He’d let his sister name that one, a mistake he hadn’t repeated. He also hadn’t the heart to re-name it, knowing how much it would hurt her feelings). This new one was bright indeed, as bright as Old Bear itself, if not brighter. Its light was solid, never wavering or twinkling in the slightest. Jaysun began to think it might be a planet, but this new light had never before appeared in the sky. It couldn’t possibly be a planet.
As he watched transfixed at this new arrival in his night sky, the bright star suddenly flashed brilliantly, seeming to throw a small halo of light in a small circle of brilliance. And then it was gone.
Jaysun sat up, his eyes locked on the sky above.
“Sherice, Sherice, did you see that?”
His little sister leapt to his side, following his gaze upward.
“What? See what? Where?”
“There. Between Old Bear and Twinky. That star just flashed.”
Sherice followed Jaysun’s finger, though she knew exactly where Old Bear and Twinky were.
“There’s no star in between Old Bear and Twinky? What are you talking about?”
“No there was, look!”
Both children locked their eyes on that dead space between the familiar stars. Jaysun’s new star failed to return, or even blink its existence.
“There was something there, I saw it.”
Sherice stood back up, her expression belying her disbelief.
“Sure there was.”
“I’m not kidding, Sherice, I’m serious. There was a light there. It flashed, and now it’s gone.”
Sherice shook her head. “Sure Jay, whatever.” And she was off to chase more lightning-bugs.
Jaysun lay still, his eyes transfixed on the spot where he knew he’d seen that light. Knew it!
Suddenly Sherice appeared again at his side, a small device in her hand emitting a soft, blue glow.
“Father says we have to come home, right now. C’mon.” Her voice was full of unusual concern.
“I’m not leaving.”
“We have too. Father said it’s urgent.”
Though he was loathe to leave his spot, Jaysun dared not risk the wrath of his father. Sherice’s voice also carried a worried quality that broke the night-sky’s hold on Jaysun’s consciousness. Reluctantly he stood, following his little sister as she raced home.
It was months before Jaysun was again allowed to return to his favorite stargazing site. Their parents kept them indoors for weeks following the night Jaysun had recounted seeing the new star appear and then disappear. In fact, none of his friends had been allowed outside at night either, for reasons that were not explained until well into Jaysun’s adulthood.
But when he was at last allowed to visit his night-time sanctuary, Jaysun never failed to check that dark spot between Old Bear and Twinky, just in case the light returned.
He never saw it again.